The Journal of Historical Review

A Holocaust Expert Moves from Moral Certainty toward Open Debate

Samuel Crowell

When the British historian David Irving brought Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books to court for libel in early 2000, the defense submitted a number of expert opinions by historians in order to buttress the claim that Irving was a “Holocaust denier.” Christopher Browning wrote a brief but professional report on the Reinhardt camps that, although arriving at conclusions revisionists would reject, avoided personal attacks on Irving. On the other hand, Robert Jan van Pelt, of the University of Canada at Waterloo, contributed a huge and diffuse opus concerning the Auschwitz concentration camp as an “extermination camp” with a highly personalized approach directed at Irving. The present book is a revised version of that text.

It must be admitted that in the revision Professor van Pelt’s book has been much improved. Gone are the obscure philosophizing and the attacks on Irving. Gone too are the quotations from Penguin Island and Alice in Wonderland that gave us an Auschwitz embellished with whimsy. The report’s most famous passages, concerning the “moral certainty” of its author’s opinion, along with his assertion that the holes in the roof of the basement of Crematorium II had been filled in prior to being blown up, are now hard to find (though far easier to locate than the elusive holes themselves).

Nevertheless, whatever the changes in the successive drafts, it must be granted that this is an important book. First, because it represents the first serious attempt to discuss the arguments of revisionists; second, because the treatment of the arguments, while incomplete, is thorough, civil, and touches upon the writings of a number of prominent researchers, including Faurisson, Butz, Stäglich, Rudolf, and this reviewer. (A significant omission is that of Carlo Mattogno, perhaps because Mattogno’s authoritative analyses of crematories operation are not easily refuted.)

Because van Pelt indicates (p. 138) that he structured his original report as a response to my short monograph “The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes” (published to date only on the Internet),1 and because Van Pelt’s structure is largely intact, I will frame my review of van Pelt’s book in terms of issues of particular importance to my own research interests and writings, recognizing that other revisionist researchers will find their own points of departure.

From Baker Street to the Himmelstrasse

In early 1997 I sketched out a brief polemic that would be designed to argue on behalf of freedom of speech for Holocaust revisionists. Delayed by other research and writing throughout that year, “The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes” was finally posted on the website of the Committee for the Open Debate on the Holocaust (CODOH) in December 1997. It was revised and slightly expanded a year later, pursuant to Bradley Smith’s intention to mail several dozen copies to assorted historians and opinion makers in order to influence the debate then raging over censoring revisionists. Further revisions, in 2000, were made available to the French scholar Jean Plantin, who has published several chapters in French translation, but “Sherlock” remains very much a work in progress.

This background needs to be kept in mind. Notwithstanding van Pelt’s opinion that my monograph “raised negationist discourse to a new level” (p. 140), it must be said at the outset that my purpose in writing it was not, in fact, to offer a comprehensive rebuttal of the mass gassing claim, but rather merely to provide a synoptic review of the problem.

The main purpose of “Sherlock” was to show that the revisionist interpretation on the subject of mass gassing was possible, and since possible, a particularly unworthy candidate for censorship. A concern for developing strategies for overcoming the taboo surrounding the Holocaust, as well as the existing censorship laws, has been the unspoken hallmark of all my revisionist writings.

Although “Sherlock” began as a brief polemic, I can understand that it might be seen as a more substantial piece. But while the work may be a fair survey of the gas chamber problem, it makes no claims to comprehensiveness and thus cannot be legitimately criticized on that account. Indeed, many features still indicate its primarily polemical and rhetorical origin. Its fanciful title was chosen to attract a British audience, at a time when censorship beckoned there. It was deliberately plotted to surprise the reader. And it was constructed to provide support to the two main revisionist conceptions that must be true if there were no homicidal gassings in the Second World War. First, that the manifold testimonies can be shown to be interconnected and to go back to rumors and propaganda; second, that the documentary evidence that appears to discuss mass gassings is in fact about other things.

Hence, the two main parts of van Pelt’s book depend on the issues of testimony and material evidence, and I will discuss each of these in turn.

Testimonies

The Holocaust gassing claim is unusual in that it is comprised of much testimonial evidence, and a rather small sheaf of documentary evidence that is suggestive but never explicit. That is the core of the historiographical problem of the gas chambers, as Faurisson recognized long ago.

The basic rule in evaluating testimony, and indeed any historical evidence, is that it be as near as possible to the events described; it becomes distinctly less valuable the farther from the event. There are two main reasons for this: first, because there is a natural tendency to embroider and embellish memory, and, second, the possibility of cross-pollination from other accounts increases with the passage of time.

Therefore, the first thing to be done in order to examine eyewitness claims concerning mass gassings is to arrange them chronologically. The next step requires the identification of elements in the claims that might constitute evidence of such cross-pollination. I identified several of these elements, of which the shower-gas-burning sequence was the most pervasive.

The shower-gas-burning sequence is the core of the narrative: if it can be shown by other means (e.g., documents or forensics) to reflect reality, then the revisionists are wrong, and the point must be conceded. But if the claim does not reflect reality, the story must have taken shape somehow. The question is then: where and by what means? Two possible sources occurred to me at first: a widespread anxiety about disinfection procedures, which involved simultaneous fumigation (or gassing) of possessions, and showers for their owners; and similar fears in the 1930s over the possibility of gas warfare against civilians. What I had not anticipated was my discovery that the roots of both sources for the shower-gas-burning narrative could be traced back to the beginning of the twentieth century, if not earlier. It should be added that my approach differs from that of most revisionists, for I view the evolution of, and belief in, the gassing claims as more the spontaneous result of cultural and psychological forces (such as those which generate urban legends in our own time) rather than as a consequence of deliberate falsehood.

Even if a general anxiety about poison gas and specific anxieties over what fumigation and communal showering might entail, joined to a horror of cremation, was found to have given rise to the gas chamber stories, however, that in itself would not suffice to solve the problem of how the gassing stories were disseminated. There were undoubtedly many rumors about gassings in Europe during the Second World War, but what I needed was evidence that was both specific and contemporary. This line of inquiry led me to several clues suggesting that mass gassing stories were widely reported and discussed throughout the war. Even as the Irving trial was being fought, Eric A. Johnson published a book called Nazi Terror, which revealed that the author had successfully located the long lost BBC broadcast transcripts from the war years. These, along with other contemporary evidence, proved conclusively that radio broadcasts concerning gassings were beamed back to Germany, Poland, and other parts of occupied Europe, beginning in summer 1942 and continuing through the war, and that rumors of gassings in general had been rife from the fall of 1940.

In researching these ideas I was generally following by my own route a path that had been blazed by Butz, Faurisson, and Berg years ago. I had no preconceived theory of delusion, nor did I take the Princeton psychologist Elaine Showalter as my inspiration, as van Pelt claims. On the contrary, I sought out Showalter’s work near the end of my research, because I was looking for contemporary discussion of hysterical symptoms that would bolster my theory.

Such attributions of influence do not refute the basic idea: the priority of propaganda and rumor to any non-anonymous account of mass gassing simply means that we cannot exclude the possibility that all subsequent eyewitnesses are simply repeating the omnipresent rumor.

Naturally, this premise could be misleading. It may be that the eyewitnesses are entirely truthful, and that the disseminated propaganda and rumor reflected that truth. In that case, however, one would first have to prove the veracity of the gassing claims by other means in order to show that the rumors and propaganda did not cause the later accounts. Second, it would have to be explained how the gassing program was carried out, as claimed, with stealth and cunning under the full glare of Allied publicity. In short, I concluded that the priority of rumor and propaganda, while not disproving the mass gassing claim, justifies revisionist skepticism.

As this is my basic argument for evaluating testimony, van Pelt attempts to work around it. In his expert report for the Irving trial, he claimed that I had failed to show any evidence of media influence, specifically, of radio broadcasts. In fact, “Sherlock” referenced several, and in the three years since van Pelt wrote his original report more have come to light, including Johnson’s discovery of the BBC transcripts, and several references to gassing reports as heard by the German Jew Viktor Klemperer and recorded in his recently published wartime diary. Together these are enough to torpedo van Pelt’s argument.

Thus, van Pelt’s case falls back on two other arguments. One, which appeared in the original report, is van Pelt’s assertion that the Allies had no need to engage in propaganda because there was a willingness to fight, a “resolve” that had not been present in the First World War (p. 134). This argument assumes that lying about one’s enemy is directly correlative to the extent to which popular support is lacking for war. That contention strikes us as at once far too wide-reaching – it is the kind of argument that would require a separate study to successfully argue – and furthermore, it seems to stand the relationship of the two wars on its head. If anything, the First World War was fought with greater gusto and idealism by all combatants than the Second, which began without the enthusiasm of 1914, and for the most part was waged with little more than dogged resignation on all sides.

Van Pelt’s second argument on the testimony involves the claim, repeated whenever a new witness statement is introduced, that it “independently confirms” the content of someone else’s testimony. But no evidence is advanced for the independence of these testimonies, only the assertion.

Furthermore, the thesis of independent confirmation would require that the Nazis’ former prisoners, and the German POWs who testified in wartime trials staged by the Soviets, were not only oblivious to the news, broadcasts, and rumors circulating around them during the war, but even after the war, when such claims were universally trumpeted as evidence of the depravity of the Nazi regime. In addition, this thesis would require that the postwar interrogators and judges were similarly oblivious to these reports, and had absolutely no expectations of gas chamber testimony in the course of their questionings.

Next we must turn to the substance of the testimonies that van Pelt considers most accurate. In general, van Pelt’s approach is to leave out the elements that tend to rebut a witness, or to explain such elements away. For example, when discussing the testimony of Ada Bimko, van Pelt’s explanation of her notorious assertion that the poison gas at Auschwitz came in big round tanks is that Bimko misunderstood what she was shown (p. 234).2 Similarly, in treating the diary entries of Dr. Kremer, and after discussing Faurisson’s deconstruction of these texts,3 van Pelt makes the surprising assertion that if Dr. Kremer were alive today, he would contradict Faurisson’s reading (p. 290).

Even if one grants that van Pelt’s explanations are possible, it should be clear that he is allowing a high degree of interpretative intervention into these texts. Therefore, he cannot legitimately claim that less invasive alternative explanations are not possible.

Of course revisionism’s opponents are quick to complain about revisionist techniques of text criticism. Sometimes these critics have a point: just because a witness makes unlikely claims elsewhere, or even appears to deliberately lie, does not by itself mean that the witness is necessarily making things up about homicidal gassings. On the other hand, if a witness, speaking of matters other than gassing, is shown to have said untrue things, then questions regarding the reasons, and the motives, for such false statements clearly are in order. In such cases, one must conclude that the testimony may be doubted, including the claims of homicidal gassing.

No one can read the testimonies without concluding that something terrible was going on in these camps. To be frank, some of the testimonies van Pelt cites seem more probable than others, for example, the statements attributed to Kurt [Hans] Aumeier, and the brief comments of Josef Klehr and Hans Münch in recent decades. Nonetheless, the revisionist position that testimony may be doubted, not only because of the social and judicial pressures surrounding such testimony, but also because the gassing claims themselves originated in an atmosphere of anonymous rumor which makes all testimony potentially derivative, is irrefutable.

Documents

Of course, the eyewitness testimonies only have value if they can be correlated with the material and documentary reality of the camp. Here the revisionists have made important contributions in the past twenty-five years or so, based largely on the on-site investigations of Faurisson, which in turn have led to the forensic studies of Leuchter, Rudolf, Mattogno, and many others. The importance of the revisionist work is that the testimonies can now be evaluated in terms of the limits of the actual physical layout of the camps, and assessed in the knowledge of the scientific limits of Zyklon B usage and crematory operation. Hence, eyewitness testimonies that claim that the downstairs gas chambers were accessible to gigantic dump trucks, or describe clouds of blue or yellow poison gas, or maintain that a crematory undressing room was the length of two football fields, can all be safely set aside as being based on hearsay, or imagination, but not on reality.

The other aspect of the material approach concerns the documentary record of the camp, as it pertains to the operation of the crematories as “factories of death.” Here van Pelt relies largely on his by now well-known analyses of a few key documents. Thus he claims that the much discussed “Vergasungskeller” (“gassing cellar”) note was actually written by the building supervisor, Kirschneck, for signing by Auschwitz construction chief Bischoff, but that Bischoff noticed that Kirschneck had used a forbidden word (“Vergasungskeller,” the interpretation of which remains contested) and therefore underlined it and sent the note back to its author, writing Kirschneck’s name on it. Or he argues that the word “Sonderbehandlung” (special treatment), which occurs in a document concerning electrical consumption, must have had something to do with ventilating the gas chambers after a gassing, because “Sonderbehandlung” always means killing.

At this point I found myself becoming dissatisfied with Professor van Pelt’s treatment, so superficial did his interpretations seem. I was able to discover several Auschwitz documents with Kirschneck’s name scrawled on the top, which I reproduced in a monograph published shortly after the Irving trial.4 By van Pelt’s logic, this must mean that Kirschneck was continually being upbraided by his superiors, although of course the more likely explanation was that Kirschneck’s name was simply written on his copies. As for the “simultaneous cremation and special treatment” in the electrician’s memo, I can only repeat my argument that the alleged twenty minute ventilation time of the gas chamber would be meaningless within the time frame of a mass burning that would have taken at least two days, at a time when the crematory was still unequipped with a ventilation system.

Bomb Shelters

My dissatisfaction turned to disappointment on encountering van Pelt’s thoroughly revised discussion of bomb shelters. During the past five years I have written three long monographs on this topic in order to advance the idea that German civil defense measures, including gas-tight doors with peepholes, are sufficient explanation for at least some of these fixtures, found at Auschwitz and other concentration camps, that are alleged to have been used for murder by gassing.

While it may surprise Professor van Pelt, the issue of bomb shelters had no place in the original scheme of “Sherlock.” Rather, my bomb shelter articles were written separately, for a very specific purpose, namely, to force the establishment to credit a revisionist contribution to Holocaust historiography. Thus, even here, I was making a case against censorship: for, if the establishment was forced to concede the point, then the drive for censorship would be defeated, as the interdependence of the two positions would have been demonstrated. I was so rash as to expect in 1997 that the establishment, as well as other revisionists, would concede that the gas-tight doors with peepholes found at Auschwitz were bomb shelter doors by design and construction, regardless of whether they had been used for other purposes, say, disinfection chambers or homicidal gas chambers. That would have suited me, and the discussion could have continued from there. Yet there has been no concession. One might propose a number of reasons why the Holocaust establishment fails to concede the point, but in any case its obtuse refusal to face reality only underlines the extent to which the traditional story rests on rigid patterns of thinking that are serious need of the fillip revisionism provides.

Van Pelt’s approach to the issue of bomb shelters is to be narrow and literalistic. Thus, Van Pelt argues, that because the first document concerning the construction at Auschwitz of dedicated bomb shelters comes only from November 1943, there could not have been any provision for civil defense, including gas-tight fixtures, before then. In the same way, van Pelt follows my revisionist critics in arguing that evidence for bomb shelters in 1944 is completely irrelevant, because the crematoriums had been constructed and fitted out with gas-tight materials a year earlier.

These lines of argument strike me as unnaturally narrow in scope. In the first place, van Pelt ignores the sizable amount of evidence that indicates an awareness and intention to implement civil air defense in existing buildings at Auschwitz, and points further east, in occupied Poland, beginning in the summer of 1942. It is true that we have no single document proving that the gas-tight doors from the spring of 1943 were put in place to fulfill civil defense requirements. But we don’t have any documents indicating that these doors were put in place to gas people, or the objects that were unquestionably fumigated in the camps, either.

By ignoring the later documentation, van Pelt is able to ignore the fact that the gas-tight doors described from March 1944 are indistinguishable from the doors installed at the crematories the previous spring. Furthermore, he is oblivious to a contradiction implicit in his scenario: for he claims that doors of the same model, designed for the anti-fragmentation trenches for the guards, the workers, and even the prisoners, are supposed to have been used for homicidal purposes not only simultaneously, but at the time when the flood-tide of Auschwitz gas exterminations was supposed to have taken place, as according to the standard narrative half a million people were gassed in the second half of 1944.

Van Pelt commits another blunder by ignoring the 1944 documentation on gas-tight bomb shelters, which shows that the crematory in the base camp, during its air raid shelter conversion, was to be equipped with gas-tight shutters, 60 cm x 80 cm. The design of these shutters is identical to that of the wooden shutters found there by Pressac some years ago, which he has claimed for Crematoriums IV and V. Pressac gave the measurements of their doors alone as 43 cm x 52 cm, corresponding to the specifications for the air raid shelter shutters, arguing that the original openings on the drawings were enlarged. Van Pelt, however, who describes handling the shutters, nevertheless persists in claiming that the shutters are 30 cm x 40 cm, that is, half the size they appear to be, and in flat contradiction to Pressac. He also omits the fact that according to the relevant work order they were made of sheet metal, rather than wood. I must confess my perplexity here.

Convergent Remains

The balance of van Pelt’s book turns on other types of evidence at his disposal, evidence that he claims converges on a gassing interpretation, and cannot be explained otherwise. These include a discussion of cyanide traces which the resulting discussions between Rudolf and Richard Green (a Ph.D. chemist working for the U.S. chemical weapons program) has rendered moot, as cyanide was widely used at the camp for non-homicidal purposes.

Van Pelt devotes much consideration to the “insertion devices” whereby the poison gas would have been introduced into the gas chambers.5 Yet these devices, the existence of which is supported solely by postwar depositions, are nowhere to be found. In the same way, there is no trace of these objects either in the work orders or in any of the architectural drawings, except via a contentious reading of a single inventory. Because these are the sole elements that would unambiguously point to the homicidal use of the basements of crematoria II and III, the absence of this evidence is quite important, despite van Pelt’s attempt to compensate by providing numerous drawings of what the things must have looked like. Nor, in promoting the existence of these complicated wire mesh contraptions for two of the crematories, does van Pelt ever explain why there is no indication of there ever having been such devices in the two above-ground crematories, which, according to van Pelt, were purpose-built for killing.

The obverse of the claim for the wire-mesh insertion devices is, of course, the traces of the holes in the roof of the basement in which van Pelt maintains a half million people were murdered. It was on this point that Irving famously challenged van Pelt in court. To this charge, van Pelt describes first the advice Sir Martin Gilbert gave him over tea: to change the subject (p. 465), and second a report of recent date, as yet unpublished, that claims to have found three of the four holes. While van Pelt seems convinced a priori of the existence of the holes, his gestures on this topic, for whatever reason, come across as diffident and rather less than authoritative.

Toward a Respectful Dialogue

Professor van Pelt wrote this book as a historian, but when he testified at the Irving trial, he spoke not merely as a historian but as a man, a Dutch Jew who lost several family members to Nazi persecution, and for whom testifying was a way to bear witness to their memory. The anguish of van Pelt and the other members of the defense team also comes through from time to time in the pages of this book, as though revisionist criticism of the standard interpretation of what occurred at Auschwitz negates the cruelty and injustice of what the Jewish people experienced there. This attitude should be respected by revisionists, because it is a very important part of how Jews regard the Nazi persecution, and I believe that a rapprochement between traditional and revisionist interpretations cannot succeed otherwise.

Regardless of its defects, van Pelt’s book is deserving of praise, even though it reaches conclusions that almost all revisionists will reject. This is due not only to his willingness to avoid offensive nomenclature (thus, “negationist” in place of “denier”) and ad hominem arguments, but also to his readiness to look again at the evidence and debate the issues with revisionists point by point. To be sure, there are many points where, as indicated, van Pelt stopped short: he could have gone much farther with the evidence available. But the truth will not come all at once, especially concerning events, whatever the facts and whatever the dimensions, which are still a source of incalculable grief in the Jewish community.

With that in mind, I can accept criticism for my temerity in recent times in advocating the revisionist position. My efforts would not have been necessary had there not been a foolish effort to suppress, by blacklisting, prison terms, and harassment, those who dared to offer an alternative version of Nazi history.

It is to be hoped that van Pelt’s book will give rise to much comment, and that his various interpretations will be subjected to a variety of critical responses by revisionists. If these commentaries, in turn, are couched in an objective and collegial spirit, as van Pelt’s book generally is, then we might anticipate further development in Professor van Pelt’s thinking and writing as time goes on. In that case, at least, my own purpose, so long frustrated, will have been achieved: for nothing serves as a greater bulwark to censorship than respectful dialogue.

Notes

1
“The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes” has been posted to the website of Bradley Smith’s Committee for Open Debate of the Holocaust and may be read at www.codoh.com/incon/inconshr123.html
2
For a dissection of the perjured testimony of Ada Bimko, who later served, under the name of Hadassah Rosensaft, on the committee that supervised the creation of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, see Carlo Mattogno’s article “Two False Testimonies from Auschwitz” in JHR 10, no. 1 (Spring 1990).
3
See Faurisson’s “Confessions of SS Men Who Were at Auschwitz,” in JHR 2, no. 2 (Summer 1981).
4
This study, “Bomb Shelters in Birkenau,” may be consulted at www.codoh.com/incon/inconbsinbirk.html My “Wartime Germany’s Anti-Gas Air Raid Shelters: A Refutation of Pressac’s ‘Criminal Traces,’” a shorter article touching on many of the same issues, appeared in JHR 18, no. 4 (July–August 1999).
5
See Brian Renk’s careful study of Van Pelt’s Irving trial testimony on these, “Convergence or Divergence? Recent Evidence for Zyklon Induction Holes at Birkenau Crematory II,” in JHR 20, nos. 5/6 (September–December 2001).

About the author

Samuel Crowell is the pseudonym of a graduate of the University of California (Berkeley). There he studied philosophy, foreign languages (including German, Polish, Russian, and Hungarian), and modern European history. Crowell continued his studies in history at Columbia University, and taught on the college level for six years.


Source: Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 21, no. 1, p. 39.


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